Actuators Matter More than Sensors

While getting ready for my interview with Semil Shah on TechCrunch TV tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about the key enablers of the “Internet of Things.”

I see three key enablers for technology applications that connect the real world to the Internet (aka the Internet of Things):

  1. Smartphones.  The massive, unprecedented consumer adoption of two major mobile computing platforms (iOS and Android) puts enormous processing power in the hands of end-users worldwide. Consumers can use these devices to discover and interact with the world (and nearby devices) in their immediate vicinity in powerful new ways.
  2. Sensors.  Moore’s Law has driven the cost of sensors into the ground, at a similar rate to CPU power and speed.  Every smartphone today packs enormous sensor capabilities in terms of location, sound, accelerometers, imaging and touch.  Instagram and Foursquare are valuable examples of startups that have leveraged sensor technology in ways that appeal to mainstream consumers.
  3. Actuators.  These technologies are advancing just as rapidly as sensors and CPUs, especially in terms of low cost and high reliability.  But startups haven’t fully realized their potential - yet.  Actuators allow control, not just information transfer.

Today, no one is talking about the importance of actuators.  But these are the devices that translate computation into action - also known as robots - which is where startups are about to make massive amounts of money.  The next Facebook/Google/Microsoft will be powered by actuators.

Look at the Nest Labs thermostat, for example.  It senses ambient temperature, monitors occupancy through motion sensors, and records user input when the ring is turned clockwise or counterclockwise.  But the magic in the device is the fact that it controls the HVAC system.  Without modern solid-state voltage actuators, this wouldn’t be possible in a such a sexy device.

For another great example, just go to the toy store and pick up a radio-controlled helicopter or airplane.  For $50, anyone can buy a personal flying drone with hours of HD video recording built in.  Military-scale spying for a fraction of the cost.  This type of $50 aircraft wouldn’t exist without super-cheap, state-of-the-art actuators to control propeller speed and control surfaces for long durations and difficult conditions (ie handled by kids).

The next great example, about to happen, will be the fully automated car.  Every major subsystem in modern automobiles is in the process of being replaced by drive-by-wire systems.  Manual transmissions are becoming obsolete.  By marrying these advances in actuation technology, with massive recent advances in computer vision, the self-driving car is about to revolutionize transportation forever.

Low-cost, reliable actuators represent the final building block of robotics - which is on the cusp of a huge revolution.  To date, robotics has been the realm of HAL and the Roomba.  But once the self-driving car hits the streets in volume, robotics will finally enter the mainstream.  And it couldn’t happen without the recent, incredible advances in actuators.